ECA driving all things geospatial

ECA driving all things geospatial

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How does ECA contribute in building inclusive, people-centred knowledge societies vis-à-vis geospatial technologies?Aida Opoku-Mensah
Aida Opoku-Mensah
Director
ICTs and S&T Division (ISTD)
UN Economic Commission for Africa

How does ECA contribute in building inclusive, people-centred knowledge societies vis-à-vis geospatial technologies?
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) is the regional office of the UN in Africa with a mandate to promote the economic and social development of its member States, foster intra-regional integration, and promote international cooperation for Africa’s development. ECA’s work programme focuses on achieving results in two related and mutually supportive areas: i) Promoting regional integration in support of the African Union vision and priorities; ii) Meeting Africa’s special needs and emerging global challenges. The activities of the Commission are divided into programmatic areas among which the ICT, Science and Technology Division (ISTD) plays a pivotal role in “Harnessing Information for Development”.

The impact of rapid globalisation and the emerging new global economic emphasises the importance of information and knowledge products as raw resource for driving economic change, restructuring businesses, affecting skills and employment, contributing to growth, and facilitating the opening of markets through a wider and faster flow of information and knowledge.

Within its programme of Harnessing Information for Development, ECA implements and supports activities aiming to assist African member States to improve the understanding and the use of spatially enabled information technologies for decision- making in various sectors of development. The Commission fully recognises that geoinformation systems and related disciplines are information development tools in the knowledge economy and constitute the driving force of many applications and streamlined online services. Indeed, geospatial science and technologies offer a radically different way in which we produce and use information and knowledge required to manage our communities and economic activities, making it possible for any user or decision maker to know what information resources are available, where they are and to be in a position to appraise them in relation to his/her needs and to his/her homeland or community’s future. Such integration provides the framework of the “Community Knowledge System” that should enhance and sustain the African Information Society and Knowledge Economy ECA is advocating.

Lack of social infrastructure is a major reason of concern in many countries of African continent. How is ECA partnering with governments and NGO in enabling the use of geospatial technologies for this?
Geospatial technologies in economic development have influenced decision-support systems strongly in evaluating alternatives to enhance decisions and to achieve specific objectives. To ensure that appropriate geoinformation products are used in policy making and hence sustainable development, ECA is encouraging and assisting member States, both government and private sector, to evolve a mapping policy, create state/national topographical database, invest in capacity building. That is best done by adopting an infrastructure like NSDI, the backbone of the challenge for using geoinformation for development in Africa. Today with ECA support, a significant number of countries have taken steps for developing national geoinformation policies as well as legal / institutional frameworks. Close attention is given to the continental integration and harmonisation of the NSDIs under the umbrella of the African Regional Geospatial Data Infrastructure (ARGDI) and their linkage with the National Information and Communication Infrastructure (NICI) plans.

Lack of trained human resources is a cause of great concern in every nation of Africa. As an enabling platform, any initiatives from ECA to facilitate training and retaining of manpower?
Individual, institutional and infrastructure capacity are essential in the continent development. Even if geospatial science and technology is mature enough to bring appropriate responses to the growing demand from users – for simple, convenient access to online information, products and services, capacity building is still a key challenge in Africa. As human resource development is the main factor for economic prosperity, it is important that priority is accorded to investing in human capacity development. That is why ECA is partnering with its regional centres of excellence RECTAS and RCMRD to develop training programmes in geoinformation technologies and their applications in resource assessment, planning, management and monitoring such as to attract, stabilise and retain a sustainable human resources in Africa. ECA is also making substantive effort to enable member States participation at important regional geo-related events (such as AfricaGIS, AARSE Conference, GeoSpatial Africa, etc…) where many key decisions are taken. These assemblies provide ideal opportunities to prominently disseminate the Commission’s vision and perspectives for geospatial science and technology development in the continent. The aim is finally to empower people (technicians, decision-makers, communities, etc..) to do as much as possible by themselves: not only for the production but on top of this, for the application of geoinformation products and services.

What are the challenges for the uptake of geospatial technology in Africa? What are ECA’s initiatives in this direction?
Despite the importance of geospatial science and technology in knowledge generation and application, geoinformation still does not arouse political interest and many African policy makers do not view knowledge management in long-term perspective to enable investment in the infrastructure needed. A key challenge for the geoinformation community in Africa is the need for closer linkage between the geoinformation products and societal benefits. Therefore, we believe that any process should start in the minds of the people, the mind of the most influential ones in these two fields.

  • Decision-makers awareness raising through advocacy workshops, media campaigns, etc.
  • Evolutionary prototyping approach through development of spatially enabled e-government services, where geospatial information products and services are developed to stir up the economies. In keeping with global trends and with view to enhance the SDI implementation, ECA is moving toward the development of Spatially-Enabled Government Services (SEGS) that will foster the accessibility of spatial data and the use of spatial information technologies in government day-to-day business processes and on-line services delivery.

    How is the response from the member States to the initiatives of ECA?
    Despite the efforts of ECA and other partners, progress in developing SDIs in Africa has been very slow, due mainly to poor awareness and understanding of the link between the content and components of the SDI and the day-to-day decisions and activities of the society. Given the limited financial resources available to governments, priority is given to supposedly more pressing activities without realising the dependence of most of them on the availability of timely, accurate and reliable geoinformation resources.

    ECA has responded by seeking to integrate SDI policies into the very successful work on National Information and Communication Infrastructure (NICI) plans and strategies to mainstream geoinformation services into national economies. We are continuously recording requests from member States to assist in strengthening their national geoinformation resources. Today, we are observing an increase awareness of African governments and other sectors of society on the importance of geoinformation in socioeconomic development as a tool to facilitate spatial data collection, access and use in the decision-making processes, both nationally and regionally, through a participatory approach.

    What are the future plans of ECA in promoting networking among institutions and practitioners in geoinformation?
    The Commission continues to collaborate and coordinate its activities with other agencies in UN system, with international and regional associations and programmes, and other development partners, as an important vehicle for mobilising financial resources and technical know-how in support of Africa’s developments in the field of geoinformation. Efforts have been made to develop partnership with regional and international organisations through contribution and participation to several forums on geoinformation at national and sub-regional levels: Group on Earth Observation (GEO), GMES, etc.

    On the other hand, the Commission promotes the adoption of cooperative, multi-stakeholder approach to production, management, and dissemination of data at national and regional level in Africa.